Amidst the late-evening darkness the October wind howls and lashes its way through the streets of Augusta, Maine. Leaves, all the colours of the Autumnal colour palate, display their beauty, albeit fleetingly, lit momentarily beneath the dull glow of the streetlights as they waltz uneasily through the air. Trees, shed of their foliage, bare, emaciated, lash out at the gusts of wind, their bony fingers stabbing through the subtlest hint of mist creeping in from the Kennebec River. A sporadic drop of rain, hidden within the night’s dark canvas, hints at a meteorological escalation of things to come.
Throughout the town doors are locked, windows latched as the populous hunker down for the forthcoming onslaught. Safe and secure within their homes as the winds outside do nothing more than mutter through the walls, a hint of desperation in their voice, a plea for attention.
Within Augusta High School the weather’s significance earns even less respect, the gathered throng oblivious to the external weather conditions, captivated as they are by the spectacle before them, the seniors’ annual Halloween play; this year taking the form of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher. Parents, siblings, friends, teachers, unconnected locals; all assembled in the school’s sizeable hall to watch the performance.
A lavish production, for a High School performance at least, the stage is adorned by a grand gothic house set. A set painstakingly toiled over, sweated over and, eventually, constructed by many a student within Miss Wilkes’ art class. The flames from a handful of real candles – despite the protestations of many within the school’s upper echelons – flicker through the near darkness of the hall, sending shadows traversing and dancing across the walls and ceiling. The three main stars of the play stride across the stage in gothic finery, a credit to the source material. The Head of the Drama Department, and the director of the performance, Mr Usher watches on from the side of the hall. He fidgets, an anxiety emanating from his stance.
An anxiety noticed by an already-concerned Mr Sheldon, the school’s Headteacher. To him his Drama teacher looks gaunt, sleep-deprived, his eyes bloodshot. Noticeably pale. And with good reason, he thinks. But then again, he had pleaded, time and again, for Mr Usher to step aside from the play. From the raft of duties the directing of the play entailed. If need be, he’d suggested, we could postpone the play. Especially in light of what had occurred. Yes, he had thrown a hell of a lot of time, effort and strain into this production, but, for God’s sake, his sister had gone missing. That kind of thing surely took precedence over a school play, didn’t it!?
But no. He needed it. Mr Usher, that is. He wanted it. He needed the distraction. That’s what he had said, anyway. This was the culmination of months, possibly even years’ worth of time and planning. He couldn’t let the students down. He couldn’t let the school down. Hell, he couldn’t let himself down. The Fall Of The House Of Usher directed by a Mr Usher? Come on, it was too perfect. Of course he’d heard the jokes, the stifled laughs. But what did that matter. It was Poe. Poe. The Poe. This was his chance to show his talent, to show his true worth. No, the show – in the most cliched of all theatre parlance – MUST go on. Plus, what good would it do, him sitting around not knowing what to do? The police had the search covered. Berenice would turn up, he said, he was sure of it. But for now, he had to fulfil his duty. His purpose, as he saw it.
Even then Mr Sheldon had been reluctant to allow it to go ahead. Yes, it would have been a hammer blow to the students, especially the three main actors who had poured over lines for months on end, but this was surely an acceptable and understandable excuse for delay or cancellation. It was his twin sister. And it was the leading story in all the local news stations. It had even scraped the top of the news agenda in a handful of national rolling news channels; MSNBC, NBC, CNN and the like. ‘Berenice Usher, 38, of Augusta, Maine, Vanishes’ read the headlines. Only a matter of weeks before her planned wedding to her fiancé – and initially suspected, questioned, and later released, suspect – Gerald Mears and, seemingly, without any trace or hint of such an act. Her car left abandoned in the woods skirting the river.
Two months now. It had been two months. And still no sign of her. He could see the strain on Usher’s face growing week by week, day by day. And now, tonight, he sees it clawing at his Drama teacher’s flesh. His face looks physically pained, contorted in a web of emotion. Clutching tightly to a collection of scripts and stage directions, one assumes, pressed tightly against his chest. He sees him visibly jolt as a sudden bang echoes round the hall. A metallic bang, sifting through from the Fire Exit door in the corridor adjacent to the hall. The students on stage halt momentarily, their rhythm broken, before continuing on. Mr Sheldon takes his eyes from Mr Usher, quickly jumps up from his seat and peers around the curtain straddling the hall’s window. A storm by the looks of it. The wind rattling the door, nothing more, he thinks. He steps back to his seat.
Another bang. Again metallic. This time louder than the last. He senses a few of the audience members around him jolt this time. Again, the actors on stage, the two male protagonists, stumble over their lines as they struggle to maintain momentum. He looks over at Mr Usher and sees him leaning towards the floor, sweat draped across his forehead, as he picks up the files and papers he was clinging onto only moments before. Mr Sheldon turns to Miss Wilkes in the chair behind him, head down and set to whisper instructions to go and check the Fire Exit door, when another, again even louder, bang resounds through the hall. An audible gasp skips through the audience. The two students on stage look at each, paralysed, and then down towards their teachers, their eyes pleading for guidance.
They continue apace, their lines spoken faster, louder, more frantic as they compete with what would appear to be the worsening weather conditions engulfing the town.
‘I tell you she…’ begins the actor playing the role of Usher. Another deathly clatter cutting his line short. ‘I tell you she…’ he tries again only to suffer the same fate, the banging now becoming relentless, a rattle more than an isolated collection of bangs. As if the elements were trying to force their way into the school itself.
I’ve had enough of this, thinks Mr Sheldon as he leaps from his chair and breaks into a small jog, heading towards the sounds. Where the hell is the janitor when you need him, he thinks as he approaches the hall’s exit door. Only to stop. He turns and looks up at the stage. His eyes following Mr Usher as he lumbers up at the stairs and stumbles slowly across the stage, his gait shambolic. The two actors each step back as their director approaches centre stage, their eyes trained on him. The audience equally enraptured. Papers and files slowly drip from his hands as his grip loosens; the pages cascading slowly through the air to the ground.
Mr Sheldon tries to move but he can’t. His mind won’t allow it. So hypnotised by Mr Usher’s movements, shadowed by the huge gothic house set and bordered by the flickering candles casting a ghostly light over the Drama teacher’s pale features. He sees Mr Usher’s lips move as another series of bangs burst from the Fire Exit door. He strains but can’t make out his words. Again Mr Usher mouths words but once more the clanging from the door drowns him out.
Then silence. The banging stops. The headteacher takes a breath as he looks up at Mr Usher, the latter dropping to his knees, his eyes turned skyward, his hands clenched together.
‘I tell you now,’ booms Mr Usher, ‘that she stands without the door!’
The words thunder across the hall, rebounding against the walls. For a matter of seconds – skirting easily around the realms of eternity within Mr Sheldon’s mind – a deep, cloying, claustrophobic silence holds the hall in its grip.
And then the noise.
A shattering metallic bang rips the silence to shreds, almost as if the door was ripped from its hinges, closely followed by another violent crash as the door to the hall bursts open. A woman, her clothes and hair sodden, stands in the open doorway. Only yards from the headteacher. Rasping gulps of breath convulsing through her heaving chest. A manic look pulsates from her eyes. Both wrists, visible thanks to her torn sleeves, are covered in flesh wounds and apparently recently-acquired scars. Mr Sheldon contemplates stepping towards her when he spots the knife clutched in her hand. He freezes. He turns and looks at the audience members closest to him, fear etched upon their faces. A cavalcade of terrified inhalations plays out a ghostly symphony around him. He turns back towards the woman. A bullet of recognition sears his brain. It’s her, he thinks. It’s her.
‘Miss Ush…’ he steps back, his words snapped in two, as she rushes up onto the stage, straight for Mr Usher, an ear-piercing scream tearing through the auditorium.
Mr Usher, his face taught with fear, steps back and slips. The woman falls on him, the knife swiping at him as she falls. Behind the two figures a candle falls from an elaborately gothic candle holder and hits the stage floor. The actors flee from the stage, their costumes a blur as they disappear from sight, Almost instantly flames skirt across the stage. The audience breaks into a medley of shouts, screams and panic.
‘Berenice! Berenice! Please!!’ shouts Mr Usher, his arms flailing in an attempt to shield the blows from his sister. The knife beginning to open up wounds on his skin. ‘I did it for you! For us! I couldn’t bear to see you leave me! Berenice, please!’
Still she slashes, bringing the blade down on her brother time and time again. On the brother she once loved. On the brother who kidnapped her. On the brother who locked her in his basement for the last two months. On the brother whose warped jealously and love made him do unspeakable things. On the brother who misused her. For his own pleasure. For his own gratification. On the brother who has ruined her life.
Mr Sheldon looks on in terror as all around him descends into chaos. Students, parents, teachers; all fleeing from the hall as the flames on stage lick higher and higher. The house set catching alight, fire ripping across the wood and carboard concoction in a matter of seconds. He feels a strong tug at his wrist, one of his teachers using all their strength to pull him from the hall, to break his paralysis. He starts to move, somehow still in a daze but moving all the same. His eyes still fixed on the stage as he watches Berenice Usher claw and swipe at her brother, his Drama teacher, Mr Usher. The flaming house set splits in a fissure providing a backdrop for the unfortunate pair. He sees her grab the fallen candelabra and strike her brother’s skull with it in a final, sickening thud as he is eventually pulled from the building. This breaks his stupor as he turns and runs in to the school car park. Dozens of others gathered before him.
Seconds later the hall explodes in a great burst of firelight. Fragments of the hall are sent spiralling into the sky. Many land roughly onto the ground of the car park. A charred segment of the house set drops only a matter of inches in front of him. He drops to his knees, staring towards the shattered shell that was once his school’s hall.
Staring towards the madness that had come before. Staring towards the fall of Mr Usher.